This one comes to us from Mockingbird friend Michael Bender.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead provides an incredibly sincere look at grace, and the legitimate challenge that can arise when we are required to grant it to our thorniest enemies. The novel contains your garden variety of churchy macro-themes, including commentary on the sacraments, vocation, and prayer. I was considering whether or not each of these themes deserved an installment in a several-part series exploring the book but, alas, I have decided just to write about the largest theme—the classic metaphor of the Prodigal Son—hoping to allow future readers of the book a less influenced introduction to Gilead’s gospel message. (Aside: Let this serve as my highest endorsement for the book, its necessity to be read, and my admission of trepidation in attempting to do it justice.)
Gilead is somewhat obscure in format. Set in 1956, the story involves an elderly clergyman, John Ames, writing a lengthy letter that his seven-year-old son. The text of the letter, meant to be read in his son’s adulthood, forms the sole text of the novel. The form lends itself to the telling of several anecdotes, but the novel is more or less void of one overarching plot in the traditional sense. The novel attains its value, and its consistency, through its engagement with several themes – chief and most broad among them, sin and forgiveness.
Robinson creates a protagonist in John Ames who is wholly mindful of his fallenness, while still convincing as a purveyor of grace in his vocation as clergyman. The fallenness illustrated in Ames is complex; he encompasses both our trespasses and how we have been trespassed against. Ames admits his agency in the sin of anger:
If there is one thing I should have learned from [my ancestors] and did not learn, it was to control my temper. This is wisdom I should have attained a long time ago. Even now when a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things, I find myself losing my temper, because a drawer sticks or because I’ve misplaced my glasses (6).
Ames also suffers from brokenness outside of his own actions, though, chief among them an oppressive loneliness: “My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it” (44).
Ames’ agency and victimhood overlap in his experience with what he calls ‘covetise.’ Ames instructs his son, telling him that “The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly.” Reverend Ames’ jealousy of his lifelong friend Boughton’s family situation is so strong that Ames finds it difficult to spend time in Boughton’s home. Ames writes to his son:
I have been candid with you about my suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children, especially Boughton’s – not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my own. I believe the sin of covetise is the pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more undeniable than covetise – you feel it right in your heart, in your bones. In that way it is instructive. I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, Thou shalt not covet. I avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said. I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice.’ I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep. I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny, when I think about it (134).
Ames’ honest portrait of himself is really a reflection of each of us, the sinners and sinned-against. While the agencies of sin may fluctuate from within and without, the victims of sin encompass both the self and others. John Ames’ pain, caused by his sins, is obvious. He feels the pain of loneliness. He feels the guilt of covetise. He feels the heat of anger. Others also suffer the consequences, though. No character in the novel comes out a more scathed than his namesake, John Ames (“Jack”) Boughton, the child Boughton named in honor of his best friend, at a time when it seemed Reverend Ames would never have children.
John Ames and Jack Boughton share a very contentious relationship. Jack spends his childhood affronting John Ames with youthful mischief—Ames recounts to his son, “I was thinking about the time when [Jack] was just ten or twelve, and he filled my mailbox with wood shavings and set them on fire” (180). Jack would steal family heirlooms, including Reverend Ames’ grandfather’s Greek New Testament, and a photograph of Ames’ deceased wife. In his adult life, Jack forgoes pranks, and instead focuses his pestering on Ames’ emotional and intellectual vulnerabilities. Ames consistently feels his pulse rising when talking to Jack—he acknowledges his weakness in being patient with Boughton. During one conversation Ames reflects, “I believe it was here he began to speak out of that anger of his, that sly, weary anger I have never been able to deal with” (172).
Even in light of their strained relationship, John Ames still seeks to love Jack. In reference to this ministry (and its deficiency), Ames writes, “I must be gracious, my only role is to be gracious. Clearly I must contrive to think graciously about him, also, since he makes a point of seeing right through me. I believe I have made some progress on that front through prayer, though there is clearly much more progress to be made, much more praying to be done” (123).
John Ames eventually enjoys some degree of success here, which proves a blessing to both men. After being made aware of Jack’s most recent of two, secret families, Ames is the intermediary of forgiveness for him. While Jack is grasping at straws, drowning in the weight of his own decisions, Ames concludes their interaction by blessing him. Jack is once again on his way out of his childhood hometown, and once again out of the lives of those who reside there. It is obvious that Jack is a Prodigal Son figure, but I think Robinson’s treatment of this story provides commentary on the biblical parable. Throughout the novel, Jack offends his hometown, runs away, gets into trouble, comes back, leaves again; he embodies a sort of endless cycle of offense and welcoming. And this is our reality, how we engage in the Prodigal Son parable. God’s grace in welcoming us home has no limits. It defeats the message of the parable to say that we can only cash in on the Father’s love for us once. Ames tells his son of the joy he experienced in blessing Boughton, just as God experiences joy in welcoming home his wayward sheep. “It was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I had gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment” (242).
The profundity of Ames life’s work seems to have come to this—the performance of a singular act. There is a certain, beautiful absurdity to the sentiment. This, however, is the greatness that is the Gospel. Marilynne Robinson explains the Father’s love for us by John Ames explaining his love to his son:
I can tell you this, that if I had married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which would not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor he has hidden from the world – your mother excepted of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face (237).
Ames’ ability to recklessly chase after his son arises from nothing his son has ever done, nothing that his son has ever left undone, and nothing that his son will ever do. Ames loves the core of his son. Like God loves us, Ames says he loves his son’s very existence:
There’s a shimmer in a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined (52-3).
Therein lies the good news of the Gospel. It is not for our accomplishments that God loves us. It is not for our sins that God judges us. It is not for our abilities or our inabilities that we are valued. It is our existence God loves. Our entire worth is embodied in the fact that we are created in God’s image, and we are called children of God; children worthy of being chased after. Children worthy of being welcomed home continuously, regardless of the filth we arrive from. Our value does not come from within, but it comes from our creator so we can do nothing to add to it and nothing to detract from it. What is this value? Can it be quantified? The value of our existence is enough that it was worthy of God sacrificing his own Son, such that we might also love unselfishly.